ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Derrick Brown has coached some talented hockey players in his high school coaching career. He led Luverne to its first Class A state boys hockey tournament in 2014 and has led St. Cloud Cathedral to three state tournaments since 2016, including leading the Crusaders to their first state title in 2019.
Jack Smith, a University of Minnesota Duluth recruit, is a senior forward for Cathedral and missed six weeks of the season with an upper body injury. Brown gave an assessment of what having Smith back before beginning the Section 6A playoffs means to his team.
"He's probably not 100%, obviously, but he's battling pretty well," Brown said of Smith, who has surgery to repair his injury scheduled for mid-March. "Even Jack not at 100% is a luxury to have. He's such a good player, plays a 200-foot game.
"It's good to see him finish out his senior year because he's given up a lot to come back to high school (hockey). He gets to finish what he came back for."
Top-ranked Cathedral (20-3-1) opens the section playoffs against ninth-seeded Prairie Centre (10-15-1) at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18, in a game at Torrey Arena.
In the four games since returning from his injury, Smith has three goals and four assists. For the season, he has 16 goals and 30 points in 11 games. Smith suffered his injury in a game on Dec. 26, but continued to go to practices and games and did cardio workouts 3-4 times a week to try to stay in shape.
"Sitting on the bench sucks watching all the other guys play because that is basically your family and those are my best friends that I grew up playing hockey with," Smith said. "It's no fun sitting on the bench all day, watching those guys practice and play in games. I'm glad to be back and to do what I can to help the team."
Whether or not Smith was going to come back for his senior season was a question mark for a while. Smith is a first-round draft pick of the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Stampede of the United States Hockey League and went to camp with the team this summer.
The previous offseason, though, Smith turned down an offer to play for the United States Development Program team to return for his junior season. Among the Crusaders, he's not the only one who could have played junior hockey and not returned. Two of them are senior linemates Blake Perbix (Omaha Lancers) and Nate Warner (Sioux Falls Stampede), both of whom could have also chosen to play in the USHL this winter.
"For the national team, it would be a huge honor, being able to represent your country, play for the USA and have that patch on your jersey," he said. "Obviously, a very tough decision. I just decided that I was too young and I wasn't ready to leave home and leave my buddies and that worked out in my favor.
"This year, all those guys — Perbix, Warner, (Mack) Motzko, (Jon) Bell — had opportunities to leave for junior and we kind of came together and decided that we wanted to do this thing again. Honestly, the best week of our lives was last year (at the state tournament). We wanted to come back and play for each other."
It is a close-knit group that, on occasion, will stop by Smith's house to get their hair cut. That is not a big shock when you find out what his parents do for a living. Andy and Steph Smith own and run the Model College of Hair Design in St. Cloud.
"The guys on the team usually just come on over to our house and my mom cuts their hair in our garage," said Smith, whose father was a swimmer at St. Cloud State. "It's pretty easy."
He has different plans for what he is considering majoring in when he gets to college. Smith, who said he has a 3.8 grade-point average, has an interest in the stock market and is considering majoring in economics.
NHL Draft attention
Something that could affect his future earning potential will happen June 26-27 in Montreal. That is when the 2020 NHL Entry Draft will take place. In NHL Central Scouting's latest ratings, Smith, who is 5-foot-11 and 182 pounds, is ranked 162nd among North American skaters eligible for the draft.
"It's obviously a huge honor, but right now, I'm not really focused on that," said Smith, who had 31 goals and 68 points in 31 games as a junior. "I'm just focused on the season and I'm not really worried about that right now. I'm doing what I can do to help the team the most."
Smith, a captain for Cathedral, has heard from NHL scouts, but Brown said he does not hear a lot about it from him.
"He has different people talking to him and he rarely brings it up," Brown said. "You have to kind of go to him to talk about it because he's not going to necessarily say, 'So-and-so from the NHL called me last night.' He's very humble. He just wants to be a guy on our team who is a leader and lead by example. I think a lot of people respect him ... He just does things the right way."
Smith does not get too complex in describing how he plays when he is playing well.
"I think I backcheck and forecheck and I'm always skating hard around the entire ice," Smith said. "I think I can make plays up and down the ice. When I need to, I can score goals, too."
So what makes him an exceptional player?
"He wins battles in the 'D' zone, he's really hard and tough on pucks throughout the neutral zone and he's really developed his offensive game," Brown said of Smith, who had 35 assists and 57 points in 28 games as a sophomore. "He's really come a long way as an offensive presence as well as being responsible defensively.
"When he's forechecking and playing his game, there's not a lot of other kids who are much better. He's ultra consistent and that speaks to his character."
Section 6A playoffs
Quarterfinals Tuesday, Feb. 18
No. 1 St. Cloud Cathedral (20-3-1) vs. No. 9 Prairie Centre (10-15-1), 5 p.m. at Municipal Athletic Complex, St. Cloud.
No. 5 Fergus Falls () vs. No. 4 River Lakes (14-10-1), 7 p.m. at Richmond.
No. 7 Morris/Benson Area () at No. 2 Alexandria (), 7 p.m.
No. 6 Sartell-St. Stephen () at No. 3 Little Falls (), 7 p.m.
Semifinals, Saturday, Feb. 22
(at Municipal Athletic Complex, St. Cloud)
Cathedral/Prairie Centre winner vs. River Lakes/Fergus Falls winner, 4 p.m.
Alexandria/Morris/Benson Area winner vs. Little Falls/Sartell-St. Stephen winner, 7 p.m.
Championship, Thursday, Feb. 27
(at Municipal Athletic Complex, St. Cloud)
Semifinals winners, 7 p.m.